I first met my love, Andi, on a group trip she organized in Vietnam. To be fully transparent, I had already been following her on Instagram for almost a year.
Inspired by her incredible story and authenticity, I jumped on the first opportunity to travel with her.
The first time we saw each other in real life was on a continent half way across the world. Though we began the group trip basically as strangers, it didn’t take long until we were falling for each other; 10 days to be precise.
Andi is an Instagram influencer, travel blogger, and dedicated entrepreneur with big sights. She works hard to diversify not only herself, but what she can offer to travelers around the world.
Very soon after we started dating, an unwelcome visitor decided to install itself between us. COVID-19 was its name. At first, we thought the virus was a joke. Other pandemics in recent history had always been short and localized. Clearly, we were wrong.
It didn’t take long for this uninvited guest to upend our lives. And unfortunately, we’re one of many couples facing the same predicament.
Travel Ban = Love Ban?
March 12th is the day we called it official, right before flying home. Andi flew westbound back to her home in Austria, and I flew the other way back to the US. None of us expected what would happen next.
On March 13th, I arrived home, jet lagged and tired. Not long after reaching home, I received the worst news I could imagine: the US enacted a travel ban on Europeans. My initial reaction was anger towards this antiquated, obviously inefficacious, archaic way to deal with a pandemic.
Then on March 16th, the EU enacted a travel ban on… basically everyone. They even put internal borders back into effect in the Schengen area, as if it was the 90s again. That hurt.
At the time, the restrictions for entering Europe were based on residency, not citizenship. I’m an airline pilot based in New York City. It wasn’t clear how this was going to work, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I turned my anger into a relentless search for loopholes that would let me see my love.
Love on the Cloud
As an airline pilot, I’m very familiar with life in the clouds. But this pandemic introduced me to something new; life in the cloud.
As Andi and I formulated plots to see each other, we learned to depend heavily on video chats during the times of uncertainty.
Our chats on Facebook Messenger often lasted more than 8 hours.
Can you imagine how it would be if you couldn’t see your love or your family? I met airline crew who couldn’t visit their partners in Europe. Some had kids. And with full-time jobs, there just isn’t much time left for video chats. I considered myself lucky.
Nothing Can Ban Our Love
Unlike the tens of thousands of separated couples, I was lucky enough to have dual citizenship. As an immigrant from Belgium who became naturalized here, I was able to apply for a Belgian passport. There was still a problem though:
- At that time, the US required a 2-week quarantine if you came back from any international travel.
- With my job, I usually work 17 days a month. A two-week quarantine is pretty difficult to fit in if you only have 2 weeks off per month!
Luckily (I guess?), COVID-related flight cancellations allowed me to re-work and compress my schedule for May down to just working the first week. Then for June, I picked up a slimmer schedule than usual and compressed my work trips into the second half of the month.
This left me from early-mid May to the beginning of June to spend with my love. I felt so thrilled that everything was finally lining up. All that was left was to sneak into Austria.
Customs in the Early COVID-19 Days
On May 10th, I nervously flew overnight to Frankfurt. Worried about going through customs, I bought 2 tickets; one to Belgium (my country of citizenship) and one to Austria (where I wanted to go). I was ready to do whatever it took to see my love, even if it meant starting in Belgium and figuring it out from there.
Luckily, going through customs in Germany was an absolute breeze. Ahead of me, a FedEx pilot struggled to explain for 5 minutes that he was returning to his home in Cologne. He was eventually let through.
I boarded my mostly-empty flight to Vienna with no issues and nothing but excitement. We were so close!! About halfway there, a flight attendant handed me a “Passenger Locator Form”. My heart started racing when I saw the two options to enter Austria: “residents” and “transiting”.
I’m an honest guy. I figured that I would fill out the “residents” section with the address of my love, even though she advised me to just tell the officer that I was “transiting”. I could explain that I was living with her.
Even though Germany and Austria are both in the border-free Schengen area, there was still an immigration officer checking all the Passenger Locator Forms at arrivals.
When I finally got to him, 15 hours after leaving home, I was sweating. I didn’t speak German. I had a Belgian passport and claimed residency, and I couldn’t even speak the language. As I expected, he asked for my residency card. My heart stopped.
Quickly, I resorted to explaining my situation and pleading with him. Luckily, he was very understanding. He simply wanted to call my girlfriend and confirm that I was going to be living with her. She answered his call with no delay, and I was shortly let through. I MADE IT.
Love During a Pandemic
I cannot properly describe the exhilaration and elation we felt when we saw each other. All the bad news, all the hurdles, all the setbacks… nothing could stop us.
Then came the 2-week quarantine required in Austria (now it’s down to 10 days). That was the least of our worries at this point. We now had each other. Those 2 weeks passed in a heartbeat.
During our amazing 3 weeks together, we talked about heading to the States together so she could see me fly before I potentially got furloughed. It was just a dream back then, sharing my love of flying with my love.
See, because travel demand fell by over 90% during the first wave, my job was (and still is) constantly at risk. In the last couple months, I’ve received 4 furlough notices. Each time, I’ve hung on to my job by the skin of my teeth.
Our 3 wonderful weeks gone in the blink of an eye, I returned back to the states. Before working, I was frustratingly forced to quarantine for 2 long weeks alone.
I got tested for COVID after a couple days back home, for my family’s sake, and received my first negative result. Nonetheless, the CDC at the time was not following the science.
Pandemic? Nah, it’s a Plandemic
Already planning our next visit, I arranged to take my vacation time in July instead of October so I could head back to Europe to see my love. This ended up being a very smart decision.
In June, while I was at work enjoying every hour of flying I could get, I was very happy to hear that the EU decided to “re-open” internal borders and allow entry based on citizenship, not just residency. This was a huge relief for my next trip.
On top of that, a campaign called “#Love is Not Tourism” began to burgeon, and 10 countries (including Austria) decided it was not right to stop love. These countries made an exception for those who could prove they were in a long-distance relationship, even Americans.
As soon as I could in July, I made my way back into Europe. It was much easier this time. I brought along my mom, so she could see her mom for the only time she could in 2020. We flew into Frankfurt, stayed overnight, then got tested for COVID the next day. Both negative. Phew.
Summer Love in Europe, Africa, and… More?
My love flew up to Belgium from Austria to see me this time. She arrived on July 12th, and we spent the next two weeks exploring my beautiful country and those surrounding it.
At that time, Europe had practically no cases while the US was still flourishing in its first wave. It felt great to escape that mess.
One lovely day at my uncle’s house, we formulated a plan that would allow Andi to join me in the US and finally realize the dream of flying together.
After spending hours of research, investigating, and calling Customs & Border Protection in the US, we confirmed that simply spending two weeks outside of the Schengen area would be enough to allow her into the United States!
The thing was, she couldn’t transit Europe to get into the US. This meant we had to find a country with direct flights to the US outside of Europe. After quite a bit of research, we decided on Egypt.
Yep, Egypt. In July. We spent an incredible two weeks there – apart from partially melting in the 120F/48C heat of the desert. Unfortunately, we quickly realized that we were basically the only two tourists there. That’s when it hit us; COVID-19 has devastated tourist-dependent developing countries far more than any others.
That’s when I decided my goal was to help others travel safely and responsibly to help revive the tourism industry that is so close to my heart. Even if I can only make a tiny change, it’s worth it.
Would you believe we got to see Great Pyramids all by ourselves? Almost made it feel like we were the one discovering them. It wasn’t a great feeling though; we watched as many locals begged for any cent they could get, just for survival.
We contributed as much as we could, while enjoying the incredibly rich and diverse sights that Egypt offers. After just over 2 weeks there, it was time to put our plan into action.
Third Continent in Three Weeks
Horror on our way home! The ticketing agent said we weren’t allowed to board the first flight! We were booked on flights from Hurghada (HGH) to Cairo (CAI) and then to Washington (IAD). This wasn’t starting well.
There was some countrywide mandate stating that foreigners couldn’t go from the Red Sea resort area to Cairo (even though Cairo is where we had started our trip two weeks prior).
There was a bit of a mix-up; we had purchased the flights on two different tickets. They realized this, but it wasn’t over.
The ticketing agent had to confirm that Andi could get into the states, sparking a 30-minute investigation into her Visa Waiver that involved superiors, telephone calls to EgyptAir headquarters, and lots of back-and-forth. We were let through.
We flew directly from Cairo to Washington-Dulles on EgyptAir’s brand new 787, arriving on August 12th, exactly one month from when we met up in Europe. As the Egyptians say often, “welcome back”.
We were way more nervous for customs than we needed to be; it was a breeze entering. It felt like normal times.
After a 12-hour overnight flight from Cairo, we drove home to Maryland, slept a couple hours, then went right back to the airport and flew off to Denver to start a cross-country road trip to LA.
By the time we arrived in Dillon, CO, 30 hours after leaving Egypt… we were TIRED.
Just State-ing the Facts
Our trip passed through Arches, Zion, Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, mostly along the ridiculously gorgeous route 70.
We made sure to self-isolate while enjoying some of the most beautiful parts of our country. That’s not too tough to do when you’re outside all the time. Lucky for us, the US was facing the lowest numbers of COVID cases since March. That was a relief.
When we finally got to LA 4 days later, we got ourselves tested for COVID-19 once more before spending time with my family, helping my sister move into her new apartment. AND… as a family, we all celebrated my birthday before I had to go back to work! That’s one successful trip.
For my birthday, Andi took me on a surprise flight in a TBM all around the LA basin, overflying downtown, Hollywood Hills, Burbank, Santa Monica Pier, and then watching my first non-jet landing in over a year! The airplane is still in one piece, so that’s good.
The American Dream
I managed to convince Andi to fly back home with me and join me on my first full work trip! I hadn’t flown the jet in over two months, but luckily, I didn’t screw up the landings too badly.
It was an amazing trip; exploring San Francisco by bike, Seattle by ferry, and the rest of the states by Airbus A220. I have never enjoyed work trips as much as I have with her.
In September, I was on reserve (which in airline terms, basically means on call). As if it was predestined, I happened to get called for my only trip that month over her birthday weekend. This time, I could show her Salt Lake City and Denver, finishing up in New York City for the weekend. What a combo.
We ended up spending 4 months together before her 90 days in the US were up… It truly felt like home.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
This time was different. Awaiting potential furlough, my airline placed me in “unassigned status”, meaning I wasn’t working anymore.
And this time, there were no stupid travel bans or horrific travel restrictions to try and keep us from seeing each other.
6 days later, I was back in Europe with my love.